Masks off. Insults exchanged. Microphones muted. The events of this year’s presidential debates have grabbed a significant portion of the US presidential election news cycle, with controversies, punditry, and discussion of the debate format popping up in every major news outlet.
Most of this attention focuses on the short-term consequences of the debates, dealing with questions of how the debate will affect the election or who “won” the arguments on each issue. But what most of the discussion misses is the long-term significance of debates as a past of the democratic process.
One important way that presidential debates interact with the system of American democracy is by influencing and being influenced by the relative legitimacy and viability of the opposition party. Ultimately, presidential debates are both a signal and a cause of a healthy US democratic system. In the context of democratic erosion in America, the presidential debates represent one area that has not undergone major anti-democratic change during Donald Trump’s presidency.
First, it is important to define the theoretical scope of this analysis. There are three key pieces to examine:
- Definition of a healthy democracy
- Legitimacy and viability of the opposition party
- Relation to democratic erosion & Donald Trump’s presidency
By first defining the metrics by which to judge the health of a democracy, we can better know the effects of presidential debates in the context of American democracy writ large. Then, by focusing on the relationship of debates to the legitimacy and viability of the opposition party, we can gain valuable insight into one key aspect of democracy, eventually expanding our analysis to the effects of this segment on democracy as a whole.
In order to examine what makes a democracy healthy, it is important to formulate a robust definition of democracy itself. Robert Dahl provides a detailed definition which includes many different traits of an ideal democracy, all of which fall into three categories: in a healthy democracy, all citizens must be able to formulate their preferences, signify their preferences, and to have their preferences “weighed equally in the conduct of the government.” Presidential debates and their relation to the state of opposition parties affect all of these categories in a number of different ways.
In order to examine these effects, it is important to first flesh out the relation between presidential debates and opposition parties. Presidential debates provide a platform which both literally and figuratively places opposing presidential candidates at the same level; by placing opposition candidates in direct contrast with sitting presidents, debates foster an image of healthy democratic conflict. Here, the term “legitimacy” relies largely on public perception of the candidates — if a candidate is presented and widely viewed as a qualified and fairly nominated potential president, then they would be considered more legitimate. The word viability here is just used in the electoral sense — a more viable candidate is one who has a good chance of being elected.
Debates are partly a manifestation of the opposition party’s legitimacy and viability in the American system. The fact that the sitting president must descend to the same level as the opposition, with equal time allotments and under the authority of a nonpartisan moderator, is a testament to the public pressure that a president would face if they refused to do so. The existence of this public pressure suggests that the opposition is legitimate — their legitimacy is derived from the opinions of citizens. Additionally, the debates display a level of viability for the opposition candidate; the presidential election has been narrowed down to two candidates, which means that the opposition has been able to consolidate support among a large segment of the country.
There is evidence that the outcomes of presidential debates actually do little to affect the outcome of elections; however, this does not necessarily mean that presidential debates as a democratic practice in the US do not have effects on the state of the democratic system as a whole, especially the legitimacy and viability of opposition parties. Presidential debates, as long as they retain their ability to temporarily place the current regime and the opposition party on ostensibly equal footing, likely serve to bolster the legitimacy of the opposition, as they force tens of millions of viewers to examine the qualifications of opposition candidates and forward the idea that the opposition is participating actively in the political process. Presidential debates also likely the viability of opposition candidates by exposing viewers to the opposition’s viewpoints and presumably providing positive exposure to candidates by placing them in a presidential setting.
By increasing the legitimacy and viability of opposition candidates, presidential debates bolster American democracy. By having opposition candidates participate in debates, citizens are better able to formulate their preferences, as they are presented with multiple viewpoints in a direct and organized manner. Additionally, the opposition party’s ability to share the views of its supporters during debates allows Americans who disagree with the current regime to more effectively signify its preferences. Presidential debates also allow the preferences of citizens to be weighed more equally in the conduct of government, as they force the sitting president to present their governing ideology to the people; by increasing accountability, presidential debates cause the preferences of more citizens to have to be taken into account more.
During his tenure as president, Donald Trump has trampled on many norms that were once considered key parts of American democracy, from refusing to release his tax returns to greatly reducing the number of state department press briefings. In the context of the presidential debates, however, Trump has actually not had a huge effect. Despite his occasional interruptions and lies, the core purpose of the presidential debates remains sound. This doesn’t mean that Trump’s tenure has not led to democratic erosion — he has certainly had a significant impact on other democratic institutions. It remains important to examine future debates through a long-term lens; if the core aspects of presidential debates are changed or eliminated, it could be a sign that American democracy has eroded to an unrecognizable level.
Though I personally enjoy the presidential debates—more for their entertainment value than anything else—I had been skeptical of their democratic value to the United States. Previously, I did not consider them anti-democratic, but instead as unnecessary window-dressing that didn’t really amount to much, considering, as you cited, how little impact they actually have on voting behavior. However, your argument that the symbolism present in the debates—chiefly, the legitimation of the opposition party—has important impacts on the health of American democracy is strong. Forcing both sides onto the same stage for a (relatively) civil discussion certainly has the effect of disseminating the viewpoint that both sides can win. That being said, I wonder how the recent devolution of the debates into name-calling, lying, and interrupting can actual work to hinder democracy at the same time. In the first presidential debate this year, Trump and, to a lesser extent, Biden may have actively turned off voters with their behavior, increasing the feeling among some the politics was just an insiders game where elites vie for power and do not care about ordinary people. It’s worth noting that these issues receded during the second presidential debate, but should this trend reappear or worsen, I might welcome changes to the debates in such a manner that we could keep the symbolism without the negativity, though I don’t know what that would look like.